A new streamlined government agency charged with finding and identifying the remains of missing U.S. service members from the nation’s wars is supposed to be operating by January 2016.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered the reorganization last year after government reports said the military’s mission to find 83,000 missing servicemen has been marred by misconduct, poor management and turf battles.
The new agency, yet to be named, is supposed to consolidate various agencies into one efficient office.
The idea is to find and identify as many remains as possible, cooperate more fully with families and private researchers and make the whole process more transparent.
Secretary Hagel said the reorganization is a “top priority” for the Defense Department.
The realignment followed a series of embarrassing reports about the two agencies that carry out the mission now — the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, or JPAC, and the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office, or DPMO.
First, an internal JPAC report by Paul M. Cole, leaked to the Associated Press, said the MIA mission was so dysfunctional that it was in danger of “total failure.” Among many failings, the report said that the database of those missing is “incomplete and unreliable.”
That report was followed by a General Accountability Office report that said the MIA effort was hampered by too many chains of command, bureaucratic inertia and duplication of efforts.
Then the Pentagon admitted that it had been staging phony “arrival ceremonies” for remains at an air base in Hawaii, a story first uncovered by NBC News.
For seven years, an honor guard carrying flag-draped coffins would exit cargo planes as if they had just flown in from a long-ago battlefield, but it was all a show.
The Pentagon acknowledged that the remains were at JPAC’s laboratory and the coffins were empty. In fact, the planes couldn’t even fly; they had been towed into position before the families of the missing arrived.
Then, in December, Stars and Stripes reported that JPAC had ignored investigative leads and was resistant to attempts to exhume the remains in graves for the unknown when evidence suggested those remains could be identified.
To complete an identification of someone who is interred, JPAC sifts through historical documents and medical records to determine who might be in a grave. When the evidence is narrowed down enough, the agency will disinter remains and try to make a DNA match with a living relative.
Critics have said the process is too slow and that JPAC is too fearful about making a mistake. In Congressional testimony, several experts pointed to modern examples of a more streamlined process. In Bosnia, for example, they said DNA matching of exhumed remains to living relatives was used to make hundreds of identifications in a short time.
It remains to be seen if the new agency will be quicker.
The office, to be led by an official appointed by the president, will combine JPAC, DPMO and elements of the Life Sciences Equipment Laboratory in Dayton, Ohio, run by the U.S. Air Force.
An Armed Forces medical examiner will be the sole authority for identifying remains and will oversee that laboratory, the central lab in Hawaii now run by JPAC and another in Nebraska.
The agency will also set up and maintain a central database and a case management system for all the missing.
In addition, the new office is supposed to work more closely with private research groups and organizations, some of which have said they have been rebuffed by the government.
Congressional appropriations are supposed to be reorganized so that the agency falls under a single budget line.